Tag Archives: relativity

Before the Big Bang

Beyond the Big Bang

Written by Sten Odenwald Copyright (C) 1987, Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

Sometime between 15 and 20 billion years ago the universe came into existence. Since the dawn of human awareness, we have grappled with the hows and whys of this event and out of this effort have sprung many ideas. An ancient Egyptian legend describes how the universe was created by Osiris Khepera out of a dark, boundless ocean called Nu and that Osiris Khepera created himself out of this ocean by uttering his own name. Human inventiveness has not stood still in the 5000 years since these ideas were popular. The modern theory of the Big Bang states that our universe evolved from an earlier phase billions of times hotter than the core of our sun and trillions of times denser than the nucleus of an atom. To describe in detail such extreme physical conditions, we must first have a firm understanding of the nature of matter and of the fundamental forces. At the high temperatures likely to have attended the Big Bang, all familiar forms of matter were reduced to their fundamental constituents. The forces of gravity and electromagnetism together with the strong and weak nuclear forces, were the essential means through which the fundamental particles of matter interacted.
The feedback between cosmology and particle physics is nowhere more clearly seen than in the study of the early history of the universe. In October, 1985 the giant accelerator at Fermilab acheived for the first time, the collision of protons and anti-protons at energies of 1.6 trillion electron volts, about 1600 times the rest mass of the proton. This was a unique event because for one split second, on a tiny planet in an undistinguished galaxy, a small window onto the Creation Event was opened for the first time in at least 15 billion years.


The persuit by physicists of a single, all encompassing theory capable of describing the four natural forces has, as a by-product, resulted in some surprising glimpses of the Creation Event. Although such a theory remains perhaps several decades from completion, it is generally recognized that such a theory will describe physical conditions so extreme it is quite possible that we may never be able to explore them first- hand, even with the particle accelerators that are being designed today. For example, the Superconducting Supercollider to be built by the early 1990’s will cost 6 billion dollars and it will allow physicists to collide particles at energies of 40 trillion electron volts ( 40,000 GeV) matching the conditions prevailing 10 seconds after the Big Bang. The expected windfall from such an accelerator is enormous and will help to answer many nagging questions now plaguing the theoretical community, but can we afford to invest perhaps vastly larger sums of money to build machines capable of probing the quantum gravity world at 10 GeV? At these energies, the full unification of the natural forces is expected to become directly observable. How curious it is that definite answers to questions such as, ‘What was Creation like?’ and ‘Do electrons and quarks have internal structure?’ are so inextricably intertwined. Our ability to find answers to these two questions, among others, does not seem to be hampered by some metaphysical prohibition, but by the resources our civilization can afford to devote to finding the answers. Fortunatly, the situation is not quite so bleak, for you see, the ‘machine’ has already been ‘built’ and every possible experiment we can ever imagine has already been performed!


We are living inside the biggest particle accelerator ever created – the universe. Ten billion years before the sun was born, Nature’s experiment in high-energy physics was conducted and the experimental data can now be examined by studying the properties and contents of the universe itself. The collection of fundamental facts that characterize our universe is peculiar in that it derives from a variety of sources. A partial list of these ‘meta-facts’ looks like this:

1) We are here, therefore, some regions of the universe are hospitible to the creation of complex molecules and living, rational organisms.

2) Our Universe has 4 big dimensions and all are increasing in size as the universe expands in time and space.

3) There are 4 dissimilar forces acting in Nature.

4) Only matter dominates; no anti-matter galaxies exist and this matter is built out of 6 quarks and 6 types of leptons.

The task confronting the physicist and the astronomer is to create, hopefully, a single theory consistent with these metafacts that can then be used to derive the secondary characteristics of our universe such as the 2.7 K background radiation, the primordial element abundances, and galaxy formation. The interplay between the study of the macrocosm and the microcosm has now become so intense that astronomers have helped physicists set limits to the number of lepton families — No more than 4 are allowed otherwise the predicted cosmological abundance of helium would seriously disagree with what is observed. Physicists, on the other hand, use the astronomical upper limits to the current value of the cosmological constant to constrain their unification theories.

An extention to the standard Big Bang model called the Inflationary Universe (see The Decay of the False Vacuum) was created by MIT physicist Alan Guth in 1981. This theory combined Grand Unification Theory with cosmology and, if correct, allows astronomers to trace the history of the universe all the way back to 10 seconds after the Big Bang when the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces were unified into a single ‘electro-nuclear’ force. During the 4 years since the Inflationary Universe model was proposed, other theoretical developments have emerged that may help us probe events occurring at an even earlier stage, perhaps even beyond the Creation Event itself. Ten years ago, theoreticians discovered a new class of theories called Supersymmetric Grand Unified Theories ( SUSY GUTs). These theories, of which there are several competing types, have shown great promise in providing physicists with a unified framework for describing not just the electro-nuclear force but also gravity, in addition to the particles they act on (see The Planck Era: March 1984). Unfortunately, as SUSY GUTs were studied more carefully, it was soon discovered that even the most promising candidates for THE Unified Field Theory suffered from certain fundamantal deficiencies. For instance:

1) There were not enough basic fields predicted to accomodate the known particles.

2) Left and right-hand symmetry was mandated so that the weak force, which breaks this symmetry, had to be put in ‘by hand’.

3) Anomalies exist which include the violation of energy conservation and charge.

4) The Cosmological Constant is 10 times larger than present upper limits suggest.

In recent years, considerable effort has gone into extending and modifying the postulates of SUSY GUTs in order to avoid these problems. One avenue has been to question the legitimacy of a very basic premise of the field theories developed heretofore. The most active line of theoretical research in the last 25 years has involved the study of what are called ‘point symmetry groups’. For example, a hexagon rotated by 60 degrees about a point at its center is indistinguishable from one rotated by 120, 180, 240, 300 and 360 degrees. These 6 rotation operations form a mathematical group so that adding or subtracting any two operations always result in a rotation operation that is already a member of the group ( 180 = 120 + 60 etc). The Grand Unification Theories of the electro-nuclear interaction are based on point symmetry groups named SU(3), SU(2) and U(1) which represent analogous ‘rotations’ in a more complex mathematical space. In the context of ponderable matter, point symmetry groups are also the mathematical statement of what we believe to be the structure of the fundamental particles of matter, namely, that particles are point-like having no physical size at all. But what if this isn’t so? The best that experimental physics has to offer is that the electron which is one of a family of 6 known Leptons, behaves like a point particle at scales down to 10 cm, but that’s still an enormous distance compared to the gravitational Planck scale of 10 cm where complete unification with gravity is expected to occur.

By assuming that fundamental particles have internal structure, Michael Green at Queen Mary College and John Schwartz at Caltech made a remarkable series of discoveries which were anounced in the journal NATURE in April 1985. They proposed that, if a point particle were replaced by a vibrating ‘string’ moving through a 10-dimensional spacetime, many of the problems plaguing SUSY GUTs seemed to vanish miraculously. What’s more, of all the possible kinds of ‘Superstring’ theories, there were only two ( called SO(32) and E8 x E8′) that were: 1) Consistent with both the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics,2) Allowed for the asymmetry between left and right-handed processes and, 3) Were free of anomalies. Both versions were also found to have enough room in them for 496 different types of fields; enough to accomodate all of the known fundamental particles and then some! Superstring theories also have very few adjustable parameters and from them, certain quantum gravity calculations can be performed that give finite answers instead of infinite ones. In spite of their theoretical successes, Superstring theories suffer from the difficulty that the lightest Superstring particles will be completely massless while the next more massive generation will have masses of 10 GeV. It is not even clear how these supermassive string particles are related to the known particles which are virtually massless by comparison (a proton has a mass of 1 GeV!). It is also not known if the 496 different particles will cover the entire mass range between 0 and 10 GeV. It is possible that they may group themselves into two families with masses clustered around these two extreems. In the later instance, experimental physicists may literally run out of new particles to discover until accelerators powerful enough to create supermassive particles can be built.

An attractive feature of the SO(32) model, which represents particles as open-ended strings, is that gravity has to be included from the start in order to make the theory internally consistent and capable of yielding finite predictions. It is also a theory that reduces to ordinary point field theories at energies below 10 GeV. The complimentary theory, E8 x E8′, is the only other superstring theory that seems to work as well as SO(32) and treats particles as though they were closed strings without bare endpoints. This model is believed to show the greatest promise for describing real physical particles. It also includes gravity, but unlike SO(32), E8 x E8′ does seem to reduce at low energy, to the symmetry groups associated with the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, namely, SU(3), SU(2) and U(1).

If E8 x E8′ is destined to be the ‘ultimate, unified field theory’, there are some additional surprises in store for us. Each group, E8 and E8′, can be reduced mathematically to the products of the groups that represent the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces; SU(3) x SU(2) x U(1). If the E8 group corresponds to the known particles what does E8′ represent? In terms of its mathematical properties, symmetry considerations alone seem to require that the E8′ group should be a mirror image of E8. If E8 contains the groups SU(3), SU(2) and U(1) then E8′ contains SU(3)’, SU(2)’ and U(1)’. The primed fields in E8′ would have the same properties as those we ascribe to the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces. The E8′ particle fields may correspond to a completly different kind of matter, whose properties are as different from matter and anti-matter as ordinary matter is from anti-matter! ‘Shadow Matter’ as it has been called by Edward Kolb, David Seckel and Michael Turner at Fermilab, may actually co-exist with our own – possibly accounting for the missing mass necessary to close the universe. Shadow matter is only detectable by its gravitational influence and is totally invisible because the shadow world electromagnetic force (shadow light) does not interact with any of the particles in the normal world.


The quest for a mathematical description of the physical world uniting the apparent differences between the known particles and forces, has led physicists to the remarkable conclusion that the universe inhabits not just the 4 dimensions of space and time, but a much larger arena whose dimensionality may be enormous (see Does Space Have More Than 3 Dimensions?). Both the Superstring theories and SUSY GUTs agree that our physical world has to have more than the 4 dimensions we are accustomed to thinking about. A remarkable feature of Superstring theory is that of all the possible dimensionalities for spacetime, only in 10-dimensions ( 9 space dimensions and 1 time dimension) will the theory lead to a computationally finite and internally consistent model for the physical world that includes the weak interaction from the outset, and where all of the troublesome anomalies cancil exactly. In such a 10-dimensional world, it is envisioned that 6 dimensions are now wrapped-up or ‘compactified’ into miniscule spheres that accompany the 4 coordinates of every point in spacetime. What would a description of the early universe look like from this new viewpoint? The 6 internal dimensions are believed to have a size of order 10 cm.

As we follow the history of the universe back in time, the 3 large dimensions of space rapidly shrink until eventually they become only 10 cm in extent. This happened during the Planck Era at a time, 10 seconds after the Creation Event. The appearance of the universe under these conditions is almost unimaginable. Today as we look out at the most distant quasar, we see them at distances of billions of lightyears. During the Planck Era, the matter comprising these distant systems was only 10 cm away from the material that makes-up your own body!

What was so special about this era that only 4 of the 10 dimensions were singled-out to grow to their enormous present size?. Why not 3 ( 2 space + 1 time) or 5 ( 4 space + 1 time)? Physicists have not as yet been able to develope an explanation for this fundamental mystery of our plenum, on the other hand, it may just be that had the dimensional breakdown of spacetime been other than ‘4 + 6’, the physical laws we are the products of, would have been totally inhospitable to life as we know it.

As we relentlessly follow the history of the universe to even earlier times, the universe seems to enter a progressively more and more symmetric state. The universe at 10 seconds after the Big Bang may have been populated by supermassive particles with masses of 10^15 GeV or about 10^-13 grams each. These particles ultimatly decayed into the familiar quarks and leptons once the universe had grown colder as it expanded. In addition, there may only have been a single kind of ‘superforce’ acting on these particles; a force whose character contained all of the individual attributes we now associate with gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Since the particles carrying the ‘superforce’ had masses similar to those of the supermassive particles co-existing then, the distinction between the force-carriers and the particles they act on probably broke-down completely and the world became fully supersymmetric.

To go beyond the Planck Era may require a radical alteration in our conventional way of thinking about time and space. Only glimpses of the appropriate way to think about this multidimensional landscape can be found in the equations and theories of modern-day physics. Beyond the Planck Era, all 10 dimensions (and perhaps others) become co-equal at least in terms of their physical size. The supermassive Superstring particles begin to take-on more of the characteristics of fluctuations in the geometry of spacetime than as distinguishable, ingredients in the primordial, cosmological ‘soup’. There was no single, unique geometry for spacetime but, instead, an ever-changing quantum interplay between spacetimes with an unlimited range in geometry. Like sound waves that combine with one another to produce interference and reinforcement, the spacetime that emerged from the Planck Era is thought to be the result of the superposition of an infin ite number of alternate spacetime geometries which, when added together, produced the spacetime that we are now a part of.

Was there light? Since the majority of the photons were probably not created in large numbers until at least the beginning of the Inflationary Epoc, 10^-36 seconds after the Big Bang, it is not unthinkable that during its earliest moments, the universe was born out of darkness rather than in a blinding flash of light. All that existed in this darkness before the advent of light, was an empty space out of which our 10-dimensional spacetime would later emerge. Of course, under these conditions it is unclear just how we should continue to think about time itself.

In terms of the theories available today, it may well be that the particular dimension we call Time had a definite zero point so that we can not even speak logically about what happened before time existed. The concept of ‘before’ is based on the presumption of time ordering. A traveler standing on the north pole can never move to a position on the earth that is 1 mile north of north! Nevertheless, out of ingrained habit, we speak of the time before the genesis of the universe when time didn’t exist and ask, “What happened before the Big Bang?”. The list of physicists investigating this ‘state’ has grown enormously over the last 15 years. The number of physicists, worldwide, that publish research on this topic is only slightly more than 200 out of a world population of 5 billion!


In the early 1970’s Y. Zel’dovitch and A. Starobinski of the USSR along with Edward Tryon at Hunter College proposed that the universe emerged from a fluctuation in the vacuum. This vacuum fluctuation ‘ran away’ with itself, creating all the known particles out of empty space at the ‘instant’ of no-time. To understand what this means requires the application of a fundamental fact of relativistic quantum physics discovered during the latter half of the 1920’s. Vacuum fluctuations are a direct consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which limits how well we can simultaneously know a particle’s momentum and location (or its total energy and lifetime). What we call empty space or the physical vacuum is a Newtonian fiction like absolute space and time. Rather than a barren stage on which matter plays-out its role, empty space is known to be filled with ‘virtual particles’ that spontaneously appear and disappear beyond the ability of any physical measurement to detect directly. From these ghost particles, a variety of very subtle phenomena can be predicted with amazing accuracy. Depending on the total rest mass energy of the virtual particles created in the vacuum fluctuation, they may live for a specific lifetime before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle demands that they vanish back into the nothingness of the vacuum state. In such a quantum world, less massive virtual particles can live longer than more massive ones. Edward Tyron proposed that the universe is just a particularly long-lived vacuum fluctuation differing only in magnitude from those which occur imperceptably all around us. The reason the universe is so long lived in spite of its enormous mass is that the positive energy latent in all the matter in the universe is offset by the negative potential energy of the gravitational field of the universe. The total energy of the universe is, therefore, exactly zero and its maximum lifetime as a ‘quantum fluctuation’ could be enormous and even infinite! According to Tryon, “The Universe is simply one of those things which happens from time to time.”

This proposal by Tryon was regarded with some scepticism and even amusement by astronomers, and was not persued much further. This was a fate that had also befallen the work on 5-dimensional general relativity by Theodore Kaluza and Oskar Klein during the 1920’s which was only resurrected in the late 1970’s as a potent remedy for the ills plaguing supersymmetry theory.

In 1978, R. Brout, P. Englert, E. Gunzig and P. Spindel at the University of Brussels, proposed that the fluctuation that led to the creation of our universe started out in an empty, flat, 4-dimensional spacetime. The fluctuation in space began weakly, creating perhaps a single matter- antimatter pair of supermassive particles with masses of 10^19 GeV. The existence of this ‘first pair’ stimulated the creation from the vacuum of more particle-antiparticle pairs which stimulated the production of still others and so on. Space became highly curved and exploded, disgorging all of the superparticles which later decayed into the familiar leptons, quarks and photons.

Heinz Pagels and David Atkatz at Rockefeller University in 1981 proposed that the triggering agent behind the Creation Event was a tunneling phenomenon of the vacuum from a higher-energy state to a lower energy state. Unlike the Brout-Englert-Gunzig-Spindel model which started from a flat spacetime, Pagels and Atkatz took the complimentary approach that the original nothingness from which the universe emerged was a spatially closed, compact empty space, in other words, it had a geometry like the 2-D surface of a sphere. but the dimensionality of its surface was much higher than 2. Again this space contained no matter what-so-ever. The characteristics (as yet unknown) of the tunneling process determined, perhaps in a random way, how the dimensionality of spacetime would ‘crystallize’ into the 6+4 combination that represents the plenum of our universe.

Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University proposed in 1983 that our spacetime was created out of a ‘nothingness’ so complete that even its dimensionality was undefined. In 1984, Steven Hawkings at Cambridge and James Hartle at UCSB came to a similar conclusion through a series of quantum mechanical calculations. They described the geometric state of the universe in terms of a wavefunction which specified the probability for spacetime to have one of an infinite number of possible geometries. A major problem with the ordinary Big Bang theory was that the universe emerged from a state where space and time vanished and the density of the universe became infinite; a state called the Singularity. Hawkings and Hartle were able to show that this Big Bang singularity represented a specific kind of geometry which would become smeared-out in spacetime due to quantum indeterminacy. The universe seemed to emerge from a non-singular state of ‘nothingness’ similar to the undefined state proposed by Vilenkin. The physicist Frank Wilczyk expresses this remarkable situation the best by saying that, ” The reason that there is Something rather than Nothing is that Nothing is unstable.”


Theories like those of SUSY GUTS and Superstrings seem to suggest that just a few moments after Creation, the laws of physics and the content of the world were in a highly symmetric state; one superforce and perhaps one kind of superparticle. The only thing breaking the perfect symmetry of this era was the definite direction and character of the dimension called Time. Before Creation, the primordial symmetry may have been so perfect that, as Vilenkin proposed, the dimensionality of space was itself undefined. To describe this state is a daunting challenge in semantics and mathematics because the mathematical act of specifying its dimensionality would have implied the selection of one possibility from all others and thereby breaking the perfect symmetry of this state. There were, presumably, no particles of matter or even photons of light then, because these particles were born from the vacuum fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime that attended the creation of the universe. In such a world, nothing happens because all ‘happenings’ take place within the reference frame of time and space. The presence of a single particle in this nothingness would have instantaneously broken the perfect symmetry of this era because there would then have been a favored point in space different from all others; the point occupied by the particle. This nothingness didn’t evolve either, because evolution is a time-ordered process. The introduction of time as a favored coordinate would have broken the symmetry too. It would seem that the ‘Trans-Creation’ state is beyond conventional description because any words we may choose to describe it are inherently laced with the conceptual baggage of time and space. Heinz Pagels reflects on this ‘earliest’ stage by saying, “The nothingness ‘before’ the creation of the universe is the most complete void we can imagine. No space, time or matter existed. It is a world without place, without duration or eternity…”

A perusal of the scientific literature during the last 20 years suggests that we may be rapidly approaching a major crossroad in physics. One road seems to be leading to a single unification theory that is so unique among all others that it is the only one consistent with all the major laws we know about. It is internally consistent; satisfies the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics and requires no outside information to describe the particles and forces it contains . A prototype of this may be superstring theory with its single adjustable parameter, namely, the string tension. The other road is much more bleak. It may also turn out that we will create several theoretical systems that seem to explain everything but have within them hard to detect flaws. These flaws may stand as barracades to further logical inquiry; to be uncovered only through experiments that may be beyond our technological reach. It is possible that we are seeing the beginning of this latter process even now, with the multiplicity of theories whose significant deviations only occur at energies near 10^19 GeV.

I find it very hard to resist the analogy between our current situation and that of the Grecian geometers. For 2000 years the basic postulates of Eulidean geometry and the consequences of this logical system, remained fixed. It became a closed book with only a few people in the world struggling to find exceptions to it such as refutations of the parallel line postulate. Finally during the 19th century, non-euclidean geometry was discovered and a renaissance in geometry occurred. Are physicists on the verge of a similar great age, finding themselves hamstrung by not being able to devise new ways of thinking about old problems? Egyptian cosmology was based on motifs that the people of that age could see in the world around them; water, sky, land, biological reproduction. Today we still use motifs that we find in Nature in order to explain the origin of the universe; the geometry of space, virtual particles and vacuum fluctuations. We can probably expect that in the centuries to follow, our descendents will find still other motifs and from them, fashion cosmologies that will satisfy the demands of that future age with, possibly, much greater accuracy and efficiency than ours do today. Perhaps, too, in those future ages, scientists will marvel at the ingenuity of modern physicists and astronomers, and how in the space of only 300 years, we had managed to create our own quaint theory as the Egyptians had before us.

In the meantime, physicists and astronomers do the best they can to fashion a cosmology that will satisfy the intellectual needs of our age. Today, as we contemplate the origin of the universe we find ourselves looking out over a dark, empty void not unlike the one that our Egyptian predecessors might have imagined. This void is a state of exquisite perfection and symmetry that seems to defy description in any linguistic terms we can imagine. Through our theories we launch mathematical voyages of exploration, and watch the void as it trembles with the quantum possibilities of universes unimaginable.

Einstein’s Fudge

Einstein’s Cosmic Fudge Factor

Written by Sten Odenwald
Copyright (C) 1991. Sky Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission. See April, 1991 issue

Black holes…quarks…dark matter. It seems like the cosmos gets a little stranger every year. Until recently, the astronomical universe known to humans was populated by planets, stars, galaxies, and scattered nebulae of dust and gas. Now, theoretists tell us it may also be inhabited by objects such as superstrings, dark matter and massive neutrinos — objects that have yet to be discovered if they exist at all!
As bizarre as these new constituents may sound, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the most mysterious ingredient of them all. It is the inky blackness of space itself that commands our attention as we look at the night sky; not the sparse points of light that signal the presence of widely scattered matter.

During the last few decades, physicists and astronomers have begun to recognize that the notion of empty space presents greater subtleties than had ever before been considered. Space is not merely a passive vessel to be filled by matter and radiation, but is a dynamic, physical entity in its own right.

One chapter in the story of our new conception of space begins with a famous theoretical mistake made nearly 75 years ago that now seems to have taken on a life of its own.

In 1917, Albert Einstein tried to use his newly developed theory of general relativity to describe the shape and evolution of the universe. The prevailing idea at the time was that the universe was static and unchanging. Einstein had fully expected general relativity to support this view, but, surprisingly, it did not. The inexorable force of gravity pulling on every speck of matter demanded that the universe collapse under its own weight.

His remedy for this dilemma was to add a new ‘antigravity’ term to his original equations. It enabled his mathematical universe to appear as permanent and invariable as the real one. This term, usually written as an uppercase Greek lambda, is called the ‘cosmological constant’. It has exactly the same value everywhere in the universe, delicately chosen to offset the tendency toward gravitational collapse at every point in space.

A simple thought experiment may help illustrate the nature of Lambda. Take a cubic meter of space and remove all matter and radiation from it. Most of us would agree that this is a perfect vacuum. But, like a ghost in the night, the cosmological constant would still be there. So, empty space is not really empty at all — Lambda gives it a peculiar ‘latent energy’. In other words, even Nothing is Something!

Einstein’s fudged solution remained unchallenged until 1922 when the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann began producing compelling cosmological models based on Einstein’s equations but without the extra quantity. Soon thereafter, theorists closely examining Einstein’s model discovered that, like a pencil balanced on its point, it was unstable to collapse or expansion. Later the same decade, Mount Wilson astronomer Edwin P. Hubble found direct observational evidence that the universe is not static, but expanding.

All this ment that the motivation for introducing the cosmological constant seemed contrived. Admitting his blunder, Einstein retracted Lambda in 1932. At first this seemed to end the debate about its existence. Yet decades later, despite the great physicist’s disavowal, Lambda keeps turning up in cosmologists’ discussions about the origin, evolution, and fate of the universe.


Friedmann’s standard ‘Big Bang’ model without a cosmological constant predicts that the age of the universe, t0, and its expansion rate (represented by the Hubble parameter, H0) are related by the equation t0 = 2/3H0. Some astronomers favor a value of H0 near 50 kilometers per second per megaparsec (one megaparsec equals 3.26 million light years). But the weight of the observational evidence seems to be tipping the balance towards a value near 100. In the Friedmann model, this implies that the cosmos can be no more than 7 billion years old. Yet some of our galaxy’s globular clusters have ages estimated by independent methods of between 12 and 18 billion years!

In what’s called the Einstein-DeSitter cosmology, the Lambda term helps to resolve this discrepancy. Now a large value for the Hubble parameter can be attributed in part to “cosmic repulsion”. This changes the relationship between t0 and H0, so that for a given size, the universe is older than predicted by the Friedmann model.

In one formulation of Einstein’s equation, Lambda is expressed in units of matter density. This means we can ask how the cosmological constant, if it exists at all, compares with the density of the universe in the forms of stars and galaxies.

So far, a careful look at the available astronomical data has produced only upper limits to the magnitude of Lambda. These vary over a considerable range – from about 10 percent of ordinary matter density to several times that density.

The cosmological constant can also leave its mark on the properties of gravitational lenses and faint galaxies. One of the remarkable features of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is its prediction that space and time become deformed or ‘warped’ in the vicinity of a massive body such as a planet, star or even a galaxy. Light rays passing through such regions of warped “space-time” have their paths altered. In the cosmological arena, nearby galaxies can deflect and distort the images of more distant galaxies behind them. Sometimes, the images of these distant galaxies can appear as multiple images surrounding the nearby ‘lensing’ galaxy.

At Kyoto University M. Fukugita and his coworkers predicted that more faint galaxies and gravitational lenses will be detected than in a Friedmann universe if Lambda is more than a few times the matter density. Edwin Turner, an astrophysicist at Princeton University also reviewed the existing, scant, data on gravitational lenses and found that they were as numerous as expected for Lambda less that a few times the matter density. By the best astronomical reconning, Lambda is probably not larger than the observed average matter density of the universe. For that matter, no convincing evidence is available to suggest that Lambda is not exactly equal to zero. So why not just dismiss it as an unnecessary complication? Because the cosmological constant is no longer, strictly, a construct of theoretical cosmology.


To understand how our universe came into existence, and how its various ingredients have evolved, we must delve deeply into the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces that dictate how it will interact. This means that the questions we will have to ask will have more to do with physics than astronomy. Soon after the big bang, the universe was at such a high temperature and density that only the details of matter’s composition (quarks, electrons etc) and how they interact via the four fundamental forces of nature were important. They represented the most complex collections of matter in existence, long before atoms, planets, stars and galaxies had arrived on the scene.

For two decades now, physicists have been attempting to unify the forces and particles that make up our world – to find a common mathematical description that encompasses them all. Some think that such a Theory of Everything is just within reach. It would account not only for the known forms of matter, but also for the fundamental interactions among them: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

These unification theories are known by a variety of names: grand unification theory, supersymmetry theory and superstring theory. Their basic claim is that Nature operates according to a small set of simple rules called symmetries.

The concept of symmetry is at least as old as the civilization of ancient Greece, whos art and archetecture are masterworks of simplicity and balance. Geometers have known for a long time that a simple cube can be rotated 90 degrees without changing its outward appearance. In two dimensions, equalateral triangles look the same when they are rotated by 120 degrees. These are examples of the geometric concept of Rotation Symmetry.

There are parallels to geometric symmetry in the way that various physical phenomena and qualities of matter express themselves as well. For example, the well-known principle of the Conservation of Energy is a consequence of the fact that when some collections of matter and energy are examined at different times, they each have precisely the same total energy, just as a cube looks the same when it is rotated in space by a prescribed amount. Symmetry under a ‘shift in time’ is as closely related to the Conservation of Energy as is the symmetry of a cube when rotated by 90 degrees.

Among other things, symmetries of Nature dictate the strengths and ranges of the natural forces and the properties of the particles they act upon. Although Nature’s symmetries are hidden in today’s cold world, they reveal themselves at very high temperatures and can be studied in modern particle accelerators.

The real goal in unification theory is actually two-fold: not only to uncover and describe the underlying symmetries of the world, but to find physical mechanisms for ‘breaking’ them at low energy. After all, we live in a complex world filled with a diversity of particles and forces, not a bland world with one kind of force and one kind of particle!

Theoreticians working on this problem are often forced to add terms to their equations that represent entirely new fields in Nature. The concept of a field was invented by mathematicians to express how a particular quantity may vary from point to point in space. Physicists since the 18th century have adopted this idea to describe quantitatively how forces such as gravity and magnetism change at different distances from a body.

The interactions of these fields with quarks, electrons and other particles cause symmetries to break down. These fields are usually very different than those we already know about. The much sought after Higgs boson field, for example, was introduced by Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg in their unified theory of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces.

Prior to their work, the weak force causing certain particles to decay, and the electromagnetic force responsible for the attraction between charged particles and the motion of compass needles, were both considered to be distinct forces in nature. By combining their mathematical descriptions into a common language, they showed that this distinction was not fundamental to the forces at all! A new field in nature called the Higgs field makes these two forces act differently at low temperature. But at temperatures above 1000 trillion degrees, the weak and electromagnetic forces become virtually identical in the way that they affect matter. The corresponding particles called the Higgs Boson not only cause the symmetry between the electromagnetic and weak forces to be broken at low temperature, but they are also responsible for confiring the property of mass on particles such as the electrons and the quarks!

There is, however a price that must be paid for introducing new fields into the mathematical machinery. Not only do they break symmetries, but they can also give the vacuum state an enormous latent energy that, curiously, behaves just like Lambda in cosmological models.

The embarrassment of having to resurrect the obsolete quantity Lambda is compounded when unification theories are used to predict its value. Instead of being at best a vanishingly minor ingredient to the universe, the predicted values are in some instances 10 to the power of 120 times greater than even the most generous astronomical upper limits!

It is an unpleasant fact of life for physicists that the best candidates for the Theory of Everything always have to be fine-tuned to get rid of their undesirable cosmological consequences. Without proper adjustment, these candidates may give correct predictions in the microscopic world of particle physics, but predict a universe which on its largest scales looks very different from the one we inhabit.

Like a messenger from the depths of time, the smallness – or absence – of the cosmological constant today is telling us something important about how to craft a correct Theory of Everything. It is a signpost of the way Nature’s symmetries are broken at low energy, and a nagging reminder that our understanding of the physical world is still incomplete in some fundamental way.


Most physicists expect the Theory of Everything will describe gravity the same way we now describe matter and the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces – in the language of quantum mechanics. Gravity is, after all, just another force in Nature. So far this has proven elusive, due in part to the sheer complexity of the equations of general relativity. Scientists since Einstein have described gravity ( as well as space and time) in purely geometric terms. Thus we speak of gravity as the “curvature of space-time”.

To acheive complete unification, the dialects of quantum matter and geometric space have to be combined into a single language. Matter appears to be rather precisely described in terms of the language of quantum mechanics. Quarks and electrons exchange force-carrying particles such as photons and gluons and thereby feel the electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces. But, gravity is described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity as a purely geometric phenomenon. These geometric ideas of curvature and the dimensionality of space have nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

To unify these two great foundations of physics, a common language must be found. This new language will take some getting used to. In it, the distinction between matter and space dissolves away and is lost completely; matter becomes a geometric phenomenon, and at the same time, space becomes an exotic form of matter.

Beginning with work on a quantum theory of gravity by John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt in the 1960’s, and continuing with the so-called superstring theory of John Schwartz and Michael Green in the 1980’s, a primitive version of such a ‘quantum-geometric’ language is emerging. Not surprisingly, it borrows many ideas from ordinary quantum mechanics.

A basic concept in quantum mechanics is that every system of elementary particles is defined by a mathematical quantity called a wave function. This function can be used, for example, to predict the probability of finding an electron at a particular place and time within an atom. Rather than a single quantity, the wave function is actually a sum over an infinite number of factors or ‘states’, each representing a possible measurement outcome. Only one of these states can be observed at a time.

By direct analogy, in quantum gravitation, the geometry of space-time, whether flat or curved, is only one of an infinite variety of geometric shapes for space-time, and therefore the universe. All of these possibilities are described as separate states in the wave function for the universe.

But what determines the probability that the universe will have the particular geometry we now observe out of the infinitude of others? In quantum mechanics, the likelihood that an electron is located somewhere within an atom is determined by the external electric field acting on it. That field is usually provided by the protons in the atomic nucleus. Could there be some mysterious field ‘outside’ our universe that determines its probability?

According to Cambridge University theorist Stephen Hawking, this is the wrong way to look at the problem. Unlike the electron acted upon by protons, our universe is completely self-contained. It requires no outside conditions or fields to help define its probability. The likelihood that our universe looks the way it does depends only on the strengths of the fields within it.

Among these internal fields, there may even be ones that we haven’t yet discovered. Could the cosmological constant be the fingerprint in our universe of a new ‘hidden’ field in Nature? This new field could affect the likelihood of our universe just as a kettle of soup may contain unknown ingredients although we can still precisely determine the kettle’s mass.

A series of mathematical considerations led Hawking to deduce that the weaker the hidden field becomes, the smaller will be the value we observe for the cosmological constant, and surprisingly, the more likely will be the current geometry of the universe.

This, in turn, implies that if Lambda were big enough to measure by astronomers in the first place, our universe would be an improbable one. Philosophically, this may not trouble those who see our cosmos as absolutely unique, but in a world seemingly ruled by probability, a counter view is also possible. There may, in fact, exist an infinite number of universes, but only a minority of them have the correct blend of physical laws and physical conditions resembling our life-nurturing one.

Hawking continued his line of speculation by suggesting that, if at the so-called Planck scale of 10 to the power of -33 centimeters the cosmos could be thought of as an effervescent landscape, or “space-time foam”, then perhaps a natural mechanism could exist for eliminating the cosmological constant for good.

One of the curiosities of combining the speed of light and Newton’s constant of gravitation from general relativity, with Planck’s constant from quantum mechanics, is that they can be made to define unique values for length, time and energy. Physicists believe that at these Planck scales represented by 10 to the power of -33 centimeters and 10 to the power of -43 seconds, general relativity and quantum mechanics blend together to become a single, comprehensive theory of the physical world: The Theory Of Everything. The energy associated with this unification, 10 to the power of 19 billion electron volts, is almost unimaginably big by the standards of modern technology.

The universe itself, soon after the Big Bang, must also have passed through such scales of space, time and energy during its first instants of existence. Cosmologists refer to this period as the Planck Era. It marks the earliest times that physicists are able to explore the universe’s physical state without having a complete Theory of Everything to guide them.


Harvard University physicist Sidney Coleman has recently pursued this thought to a possible conclusion. Instead of some mysterious new field in Nature, maybe the Lambda term appears in our theories because we are using the wrong starting model for the geometry of space at the Planck scale.

Previous thinking on the structure of space-time had assumed that it behaved in some sense like a smooth rubber sheet. Under the action of matter and energy, space-time could be deformed into a variety of shapes, each a possible geometric state for the universe. Nearly all candidates for the Theory of Everything’s embed their fields and symmetries in such a smooth geometrical arena.

But what if space-time were far more complicated? One possibility is that ‘wormholes’ exist, filling space-time with a network of tunnels. The fabric of space-time may have more in common with a piece of Swiss cheese than with a smooth rubber sheet.

According to Coleman, the addition of wormholes to space-time means that, like the ripples from many stones tossed into a pond, one geometric state for the universe could interfere with another. The most likely states ( or the biggest ripples) would win out. The mathematics suggest that quantum wormhole interference at the Planck scale makes universes with cosmological constants other than zero exceedingly unlikely.

How big would wormholes have to be to have such dramatic repurcussions? Surprisingly, the calculations suggest that small is beautiful. Wormholes the size of dogs and planets would be very rare. Universes containing even a few of them would exist with a vanishingly low probability. But wormholes smaller than 10 to the power of -33 centimeters could be everywhere. A volume the size of a sugar cube might be teeming with uncounted trillions of them flashing in and out of existence!

Coleman proposes that the action of these previously ignored mini- wormholes upon the geometric fabric of the universe that forces Lambda to be almost exactly zero. Like quantum ‘Pac Men’, they gobble up all the latent energy of space-time that would otherwise have appeared to us in the form of a measureable cosmological constant!

The addition of wormholes to the description of space-time admits the possibility that our universe did not spring into being aloof and independent, but was influenced by how other space-times had already evolved – ghostly mathematical universes with which we can never communicate directly.

The most likely of these universes had Lambda near zero, and it is these states that beat out all other contenders. In a bizarre form of quantum democracy, our universe may have been forced to follow the majority, evolving into the high probability state we now observe, without a detectable cosmological constant.


Wormholes? Wave functions? Hidden fields? The answer to the cosmological constant’s smallness, or absence, seems to recede into the farthest reaches of abstract thinking, faster than most of us can catch up.

As ingenious as these new ideas may seem, the final pages in this unusual story have probably not been written, especially since we can’t put any of these ideas to a direct test. It is a tribute to Einstein’s genius that even his ‘biggest blunder’ made near the beginning of this century still plagues physicists and astronomers as we prepare to enter the 21st century. Who would ever have thought that something that may not even exist would lead to such enormous problems!

Oops…One more thing!

After writing thirteen essays about space, I completely forgot to wrap up the whole discussion with some thoughts about the Big Picture! If you follow the links in this essay you will come to the essay where I explained the idea in more detail!

Why did I start these essays with so much talk about brain research? Well, it is the brain, after all, that tries to create ideas about what you are seeing based on what the senses are telling it. The crazy thing is that what the brain does with sensory information is pretty bizarre when you follow the stimuli all the way to consciousness. In fact, when you look at all the synaptic connections in the brain, only a small number have anything to do with sensory inputs. It’s as though you could literally pluck the brain out of the body and it would hardly realize it needed sensory information to keep it happy. It spends most of its time ‘taking’ to itself.

The whole idea of space really seems to be a means of representing the world to the brain to help it sort out the rules it needs to survive and reproduce. The most important rule is that of cause-and-effect or ‘If A happens then B will follow’. This also forms the hardcore basis of logic and mathematical reasoning!
But scientifically, we know that space and time are not just some illusion because objectively they seem to be the very hard currency through which the universe represents sensory stimuli to us. How we place ourselves in space and time is an interesting issue in itself. We can use our logic and observations to work out the many rules that the universe runs by that involve the free parameters of time and space. But when we take a deep dive into how our brains work and interfaces with the world outside our synapses, we come across something amazing.

The brain needs to keep track of what is inside the body, called the Self, and what is outside the body. If it can’t do this infallibly, it cannot keep track of what factors are controlling its survival, and what factors are solely related to its internal world of thoughts, feelings, and imaginary scenarios. This cannot be just a feature of human brains, but has to also be something that many other creatures also have at some rudimentary level so that they too can function in the external world with its many hazards. In our case, this brain feature is present as an actual physical area in the cerebral cortex. When it is active and stimulated, we have a clear and distinct perception of our body and its relation to space. We can use this to control our muscles, orient ourselves properly in space, walk and perform many other skills that require a keen perception of this outside world. Amazingly, when you remove the activity in this area through drugs or meditation, you can no longer locate yourself in space and this leads to the feeling that your body is ‘one’ with the world, your Self has vanished, and in other cases you experience the complete dislocation of the Self from the body, which you experience as Out of Body travel.

What does this have to do with space in the real world? Well, over millions of years of evolution, we have made up many rules about space and how to operate within it, but then Einstein gave us relativity, and this showed that space and time are much more plastic than any of the rules we internalized over the millennia. But it is the rules and concepts of relativity that make up our external world, not the approximate ‘common sense’ ideas we all carry around with us. Our internal rules about space and time were never designed to give us an accurate internal portrayal of moving near the speed of light, or functioning in regions of the outside world close to large masses that distort space.

But now that we have a scientific way of coming up with even more rules about space and time, we discover that our own logical reasoning wants to paint an even larger picture of what is going on and is happy to do so without bothering too much with actual (sensory) data. We have developed for other reasons a sense of artistry, beauty and aesthetics that, when applied to mathematics and physics, has taken us into the realm of unifying our rules about the outside world so that there are fewer and fewer of them. This passion for simplification and unification has led to many discoveries about the outside world that, miraculously, can be verified to be actual objective facts of this world.

Along this road to simplifying physics, even the foundations of space and time become players in the scenery rather than aloof partners on a stage. This is what we are struggling with today in physics. If you make space and time players in the play, the stage itself vanishes and has to somehow be re-created through the actions of the actors themselves .THAT is what quantum gravity hopes to do, whether you call the mathematics Loop Quantum Gravity or String Theory. This also leads to one of the most challenging concepts in all of physics…and philosophy.

What are we to make of the ingredients that come together to create our sense of space and time in the first place? Are these ingredients, themselves, beyond space and time, just as the parts of a chain mail vest are vastly different than the vest that they create through their linkages? And what is the arena in which these parts connect together to create space and time?

These questions are the ones I have spent my entire adult life trying to comprehend and share with non-scientists, and they lead straight into the arms of the concept of emergent structures: The idea that elements of nature come together in ways that create new objects that have no resemblance to the ingredients, such as evolution emerging from chemistry, or mind emerging from elementary synaptic discharges. Apparently, time and space may emerge from ingredients still more primitive, that may have nothing to do with either time or space!

You have to admit, these ideas certainly make for interesting stories at the campfire!

Check back here on Monday, December 26 for the start of a new series of blogs on diverse topics!

Quantum Gravity…Oh my!

So here’s the big problem.

Right now, physicists have a detailed mathematical model for how the fundamental forces in nature work: electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Added to this is a detailed list of the fundamental particles in nature like the electron, the quarks, photons, neutrinos and others. Called the Standard Model, it has been extensively verified and found to be an amazingly accurate way to describe nearly everything we see in the physical world. It explains why some particles have mass and others do not. It describes exactly how forces are generated by particles and transmitted across space. Experimenters at the CERN Large Hadron Collider are literally pulling out their hair to find errors or deficiencies in the Standard Model that go against the calculated predictions, but have been unable to turn up anything yet. They call this the search for New Physics.

Along side this accurate model for the physical forces and particles in our universe, we have general relativity and its description of gravitational fields and spacetime. GR provides no explanation for how this field is generated by matter and energy. It also provides no description for the quantum structure of matter and forces in the Standard Model. GR and the Standard Model speak two very different languages, and describe two very different physical arenas. For decades, physicists have tried to find a way to bring these two great theories together, and the results have been promising but untestable. This description of gravitational fields that involves the same principles as the Standard Model has come to be called Quantum Gravity.

The many ideas that have been proposed for Quantum Gravity are all deeply mathematical, and only touch upon our experimental world very lightly. You may have tried to read books on this subject written by the practitioners, but like me you will have become frustrated by the math and language this community has developed over the years to describe what they have discovered.

The problem faced by Quantum Gravity is that gravitational fields only seem to display their quantum features at the so-called Planck Scale of 10^-33 centimeters and  10^-43 seconds. I cant write this blog using scientific notation, so I am using the shorthand that 10^3 means 1000 and 10^8 means 100 million. Similarly, 10^-3 means 0.001 and so on. Anyway, the Planck scale  also corresponds to an energy of 10^19 GeV or 10 billion billion GeV, which is an energy 1000 trillion times higher than current particle accelerators can reach.

There is no known technology that can reach the scales where these effects can be measured in order to test these theories. Even the concept of measurement itself breaks down! This happens because the very particles (photons) you try to use to study physics at the Planck scale carry so much energy  they turn into quantum black holes and are unable to tell you what they saw or detected!

One approach to QG is called Loop Quantum Gravity.  Like relativity, it assumes that the gravitational field is all there is, and that space and time become grainy or ‘quantized’ near the Planck Scale. The space and time we know and can experience in-the-large is formed from individual pieces that come together in huge numbers to form the appearance of a nearly-continuous and smooth gravitational field.

The problem is that you cannot visualize what is going on at this scale because it is represented in the mathematics, not by nuggets of space and time, but by more abstract mathematical objects called loops and spin networks. The artist rendition above is just that.

So here, as for Feynman Diagrams, we have a mathematical picture that represents a process, but the picture is symbolic and not photographic. The biggest problem, however, is that although it is a quantum theory for gravity that works, Loop Quantum Gravity does not include any of the Standard Model particles. It represents a quantum theory for a gravitational field (a universe of space and time) with no matter in it!

In other words, it describes the cake but not the frosting.

The second approach is string theory. This theory assumes there is already some kind of background space and time through which another mathematical construct called a string, moves. Strings that form closed loops can vibrate, and each pattern of vibrations represents a different type of fundamental particle. To make string theory work, the strings have to exist in 10 dimensions, and most of these are wrapped up into closed balls of geometry called Calabi-Yau spaces. Each of these spaces has its own geometry within which the strings vibrate. This means there can be millions of different ‘solutions’ to the string theory equations: each a separate universe with its own specific type of Calabi-Yau subspace that leads to a specific set of fundamental particles and forces. The problem is that string theory violates general relativity by requiring a background space!

In other words, it describes the frosting but not the cake!

One solution proposed by physicist Lee Smolin is that Loop Quantum Gravity is the foundation for creating the strings in string theory. If you looked at one of these strings at high magnification, its macaroni-like surface would turn into a bunch of loops knitted together, perhaps like a Medieval chainmail suit of armor. The problem is that Loop Quantum Gravity does not require a gravitational field with more than four dimensions ( 3 of space and one of time) while strings require ten or even eleven. Something is still not right, and right now, no one really knows how to fix this. Lacking actual hard data, we don’t even know if either of these theories is closer to reality!

What this hybrid solution tries to do is find aspects of the cake that can be re-interpreted as particles in the frosting!

This work is still going on, but there are a few things that have been learned along the way about the nature of space itself. At our scale, it looks like a continuous gravitational field criss-crossed by the worldlines of atoms, stars and galaxies. This is how it looks even at the atomic scale, because now you get to add-in the worldlines of innumerable ‘virtual particles’ that make up the various forces in the Standard Model.  But as we zoom down to the Planck Scale, space and spacetime stop being smooth like a piece of paper, and start to break up into something else, which we think reveals the grainy nature of gravity as a field composed of innumerable gravitons buzzing about.

But what these fragmentary elements of space and time ‘look’ like is impossible to say. All we have are mathematical tools to describe them, and like our attempts at describing the electron, they lead to a world of pure abstraction that cannot be directly observed.

If you want to learn a bit more about the nature of space, consider reading my short booklet ‘Exploring Quantum Space‘ available at amazon.com. It describes the amazing history of our learning about space from ancient Greek ‘common sense’ ideas, to the highlights of mind-numbing modern quantum theory.

Check back here on Thursday, December 22 for the last blog in this series!

What IS space?

One thing that is true about physics is that it involves a lot of mathematics. What this means is that we often use the mathematics to help us visualize what is going on in the world. But like I said in an earlier blog, this ‘vision thing’ in math can sometimes let you mistake the model for the real thing, like the case of the electron. The same problem emerges when we try to understand an invisible  thing like space.

The greatest discovery about space  was made by Einstein just before 1915 as he was struggling to turn his special theory of relativity into something more comprehensive.

Special relativity was his theory of space and time that described how various observers would see a consistent world despite their uniform motion at high speeds. This theory alone revolutionized physics, and has been the main-stay of modern quantum mechanics, as well as the designs of powerful accelerators that successfully and accurately push particles to nearly the speed of light. The problem was that special relativity did not include a natural place for accelerated motion, especially in gravitational fields, which are of course very common in the universe.

Geometrically, special relativity only works when worldlines are perfectly straight, and  form lines within a perfectly flat, 4-dimensional spacetime (a mathematical arena where 3 dimensions of space are combined with one dimension of time). But accelerated motion causes worldlines to be curved, and you cannot magically make the curves go straight again and keep the spacetime geometrically flat just by finding another coordinate system.

Special relativity, however, promised that so long as motion is at constant speed and worldlines are straight, two different observers (coordinate systems) would agree about what they are seeing and measuring by using the mathematics of special relativity. With curved worldlines and acceleration, the equations of special relativity, called the Lorentz Transformations, would not work as they were. Einstein was, shall we say, annoyed by this because clearly there should be some mathematical process that would allow the two accelerated observers to again see ( or calculate) consistent physical phenomena.

He began his mathematical journey to fix this problem by writing his relativity equations in a way that was coordinate independent using the techniques of tensor analysis. But he soon found himself frustrated by what he needed in order to accomplish this mathematical miracle, versus his knowledge of advanced analytic geometry in four dimensions. So he went to his classmate and math wiz, Marcel Grossman, who immediately recognized that Einstein’s mathematical needs were just an awkward way of stating certain properties of non-Euclidean geometry developed by Georg Riemann and others in the mid-to-late 1800s.

This was the missing-math that Einstein needed, who being a quick learner, mastered this new language and applied it to relativity. After an intense year of study, and some trial-and-error mathematical efforts, he published his complete Theory of General Relativity in November 1915. Just like the concept of spacetime did away with space and time as independent ideas in special relativity, his new theory made an even bigger, revolutionary, discovery.

It was still a theory of the geometry of worldlines that he was proposing, but now the geometric properties of these worldlines was controlled by a specific mathematical term called the metric tensor. This mathematical object was fundamental to all geometry as Grossman had showed him, and allowed you to calculate distances between points in space. It also defined what a ‘straight line’ meant, as well as how curved the space was. Amazingly, when you translated all this geometric talk into the hard, cold reality of physics in 4-dimensions, this metric tensor turned into the gravitational field through which the worldline of a particle was defined as the straightest-possible path.

An interesting factoid, indeed, but why is it so revolutionary?

All other fields in physics (e.g like the electromagnetic field) are defined by some quantity, call it A, that is specified at each coordinate point in space and time: A(x,y,z,t). If you take-away the field, the coordinate grid remains intact. But with the gravitational field, there is no background coordinate grid to define its intensity, instead, the gravitational field provides its own coordinate grid because it is identical to the metric tensor!!

This is why Einstein and physicists say that gravity is not a force like the others we know about, but instead it is a statement about the shape of the geometry of spacetime through which particles move. (Actually, particles do not move through spacetime. Their histories from start to finish simply exist all at once like a line drawn on a piece of paper!)

So, imagine a cake with frosting on it. The frosting represents the various fields in space, and you can locate where they are and how much frosting is on the cake from place to place. But the bulk of the cake, which is supporting the frosting and telling you that ‘this is the top, center, side, etc of the cake’ is what supports the frosting. Take away the cake, and the frosting is unsupported, and can’t even be defined in the first place. Similarly, take away the gravitational field, symbolized by Einstein’s metric tensor, and spacetime actually disappears!

Amazingly, Einstein’s equations say that although matter and energy produce gravitational fields, you can have situations where there is no matter and energy and spacetime still doesn’t vanish! These vacuum solutions are real head-scratchers when physicists try to figure out how to combine quantum mechanics, our premier theory of matter, with general relativity: our premier theory of gravity and spacetime. These vacuum solutions represent gravitational fields in their purest form, and are the starting point for learning how to describe the quantum properties of gravitational fields. They are also important to the existence of gravity waves, which move from place to place as waves in the empty spacetime between the objects producing them.

But wait a minute. Einstein originally said that ‘space’ isn’t actually a real thing. Now we have general relativity, which seems to be bringing space (actually spacetime) back as something significant in its own right as an aspect of the gravitational field.

What gives?

To see how some physicists resolve these issues, we have to delve into what is called quantum gravity theory, and this finally gets us back to some of my earlier blogs about the nature of space, and why I started this blog series!


Check back here on Wednesday, December 21 for the last installment on this series about space!

Relativity and Space

Psychologists and physicists often use a similar term to describe one of the most fundamental characteristics of humans and matter: The Story. Here, for example, is the timeline story for key events in the movie The Hunger Games.

Oliver Sacks, in his book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ describes the case of Jimmy G who was afflicted with Korsakov’s Syndrome. He could not remember events more than a few minutes in the past, and so he had to re-invent his world every few minutes to account for new events. As Sacks notes ‘If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story – his real, inmost story? – for each of us is a biography, a story..[and a] singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions..and our narratives…we must constantly recollect ourselves’.

Physicist Lee Smolin, in his book ‘Three Roads to Quantum Gravity’ , describes the essential foundation of relativity as the ‘story’ about processes and not the things-as-objects.   “A marble is not an inert thing, it is a process…There are only relatively fast processes and relatively slow processes. And whether it is a short story or a long story, the only kind of explanation of a process  that is truly adequate is a story.”

In both cases, we cannot define an object, be it a human, a table, or an electron by merely describing its properties at one instant in time. We can only define an object in terms of a process consisting of innumerable events, which create the story that defines it. This is very obvious when we are talking about humans, but it also applies to every object in the universe.

In relativity, the history or ‘story’ of a process such as a football or a galaxy, consists of a series of events that are tied together by cause-and-effect to create the process that you see at any particular moment. These events include the interactions of one process with others that cumulatively create what you see as the history of the process at a particular moment. In relativity, we call this history of a process its worldline.

This is a worldline map (Credit Aaron Koblin / BBC)of airlines traveling to and from the United States. The lines give the history of each flight on the 2-d surface of Earth. Each worldline consists of a huge number of ‘hidden’ events contributed by each passenger! By carefully studying these worldlines you could mathematically deduce that Earth is a sphere.

What Einstein said is that only worldlines matter, because that is the only thing we have access to. Even better than that, we are only able to see that part of a processes that can be communicated to us by using light, which is the fastest signal we can ever use to transfer information. When we are ‘looking’ at something, like a car or a star, what we are actually doing is looking back along its history carried to us as information traveling by photons of light.

In an earlier essay, I mentioned how we do not see objects in space, but only the end points of a light ray’s history as, for example, it leaves the surface of an object (Event 1) arrives at dust mote along the way and was re-emitted (Event 2) to arrive at our retina, and cause a rod or a cone cell to fire (Event 3). Because these events are strictly determined by cause-and-effect, and travel times are limited by the speed of light, we can organize these events in a strict history for the object we viewed (which was in fact a ‘process’ in and of itself!).

So, what does this say about space? Space  is irrelevant, because we can completely define our story only in terms of the ‘geometry’ of these history worldlines and the causal connections between events on these worldlines, without any mention of space as a ‘background’ through which things move.

This leads to another problem.

Einstein’s new relativistic theory of gravity makes use of a convenient mathematical tool called 4-dimensional spacetime. Basically we live in a world with three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, making a 4-dimensional thing called spacetime. Without knowing, you live and work in 4-dimensions because there is nothing about you that does not ‘move’ in time as well as space from second to second. All physical process take place in 4 dimensions, so all theories of physics and how things work are necessarily statements about 4-dimensional things.

It is common to refer to gravity as a curvature in the geometry of this spacetime ‘fabric’, but we can just as easily talk about the curvature of worldlines defining gravity and not even bother with the idea of spacetime at all! Remember, when you look at an object, you are ‘just’ looking back through its history revealed by the network of photons of light.

So we have used a mathematical tool, namely spacetime, to make visualizing the curvature of worldlines easier to describe, but we now make the mistake of thinking that spacetime is real because we have now used the mathematical tool to represent the object itself. This is similar to what we did with the idea of Feynman Diagrams in the previous blog! As Lee Smolin says ‘When we imagine we are seeing into an infinite three-dimensional space, we are actually falling for a fallacy in which we substitute what we actually see [a history of events] for an intellectual construct [space]. This is not only a mystical vision, it is wrong.”

But what about infinity?

In my next essay I will discuss why infinity is probably not a real concept in the physical world.


Check back here on Friday, December 16 for the next installment!

Physicist Lee Smolin’s book ‘The Three Roads to Quantum Gravity’ discusses many of these ideas in more detail.